In 1958 — prodded by a student named Christopher Lloyd* — Staples High School English teacher Craig Matheson directed “You Can’t Take it With You.”
Staples Players was born.
In the 61 years since, the drama troupe has earned national — even international — renown. (Their original production of “War and Pieces” was included in a United Nations traveling exhibit.)
But Players was not Staples’ first drama group.
For decades, individual classes put on plays. They were modest affairs.
In 1950 — the year after the juniors and sophomores joined together to put on “Our Town” — the 12th, 11th and 10th grade classes combined to produce “Blithe Spirit.” Led by legendary English instructor V. Louise Higgins, they called themselves the Masque and Wig Club.
The entire cast included 7 students.
Because Staples — then located on Riverside Avenue (the current Saugatuck Elementary School) — had no auditorium, the play was staged at Bedford Junior High (today, Kings Highway Elementary).
Little is known about that early effort, or any that followed. But alert “06880” reader — and Staples grad/Players fan/producer Fred Cantor — dug up some photos.
Director V. Louise Higgins (foreground) and cast member Lucia Kimber.
The entire cast of “Blithe Spirit” (from left): Hope Collier, Jane Schmidt, Wendy Ayearst, Lee Moulton, Priscilla Planten, George Barton and Lucia Kimber.
The simple, 4-page program for “Blithe Spirit” notes:
By the time the present Sophomores are Seniors, if the club continues, they will be a reasonably well-trained group.
Perhaps even by that time the school will have some sort of drama department, for before any more real progress can be made, a speech teacher and proper facilities are needed.
Tonight, the curtain rises for Staples Players’ elaborate production of “Mamma Mia!” Choreography, acting, the pit, lighting, sets — all will be near Broadway-quality.
Thanks in part to the Masque and Wig Club, our high school indeed has “some sort of drama department.”
* Yes, that Christopher Lloyd
(Hat tip: Fred Cantor)
Half of the Masque and Wig Club program for “Blithe Spirit” …
This is a photo of 2 longtime, now-retired, Westport teachers:
The photo has an interesting back story.
It comes courtesy of alert “06880” reader — and Staples High School Class of 1950 member — Karl Taylor. Out of his graduating class of 123, almost half — 60 — are still alive.
This was taken recently on Cape Cod. It shows Jeannette Atkins Louth, age 94, former Spanish teacher at Staples and the last remaining teacher of our class.
With her is Darrell MacFarland, member of the Staples Class of 1950. He became a teacher himself, and spent his career at Bedford and Coleytown Junior High and Middle Schools.
He traveled to Cape Cod with Ethel Keene Ritch MacFarland, also a 1950 graduate. Ethel and Darrell were married last fall, after their spouses passed away. Darrell introduced me on a blind date to Lois Jane Mead of Wilton in 1954. We married in 1955.
As for Ms. Atkins: After retiring, she became friends with her Guilford neighbors Bill and Ellen Louth, Ellen died in 1989. A strong friendship turned into love. Jeannette and Bill married in 1992, and moved to West Harwich on Cape Cod. Bill passed away in 2006.
The Class of ’50’s 50th reunion in 2002 — yep, 2 years late — included Ms. Atkins, art teacher Vivien Testa and English instructor V. Louise Higgins. Ms. Testa died in 2014, age 102. Ms. Higgins died in 2016, at 94.
Thanks to Karl Taylor, their memories — and the Class of 1950 — still live.
As news of V. Louise Higgins’ death spread yesterday, former Staples High School English students from 4 decades posted their memories on “06880.
Andrea Libresco’s were longer than most. They deserve their own story.
Today, Andrea — a 1976 Staples grad — is a professor of social studies education at Hofstra University. She spent 19 years as a high school social studies teacher, and is the author of 2 books on education. It’s clear Miss Higgins had quite an influence on her. Andrea writes:
When my son was in 1st grade, he told us, “I am learning so much, she is making my head explode!” I had my own version of his teacher.
V. Louise Higgins, my 12th grade AP English instructor, wrote 1-2 pages of single-spaced comments on our papers. Her personalized journal assignments were designed to make each of us wide awake in the world.
V Louise Higgins, in Andrea Libresco’s 1976 Staples yearbook.
Every 2 weeks, each student was charged with writing a response to a particular article that Ms. Higgins had picked out particularly for him or her. It was not until I became a teacher that I truly appreciated the volume of individualized preparation and grading that these assignments entailed, not to mention the assumption that members of our class were individuals with different interests and needs.
My first assignment was a “My Turn” piece in Newsweek. An immigrant had written about immigration policy. I was tasked with writing a letter to the editor in response. I felt pretty good … until it was returned with a full page of comments.
Ms. Higgins wondered why my letter had been so impersonal; why I had not, amid my policy analyses, extended a welcome to this recent immigrant to America. Her comment reminded me that analytical thought is but one aspect of being a citizen in a democracy. Another is recognizing and valuing the individual experiences of the variety of citizens who make up our multicultural democracy, and greeting them with the humanity that they all deserve.
I also remember the comments she wrote on my senior author paper on Sinclair Lewis. They began, “Andrea, dear, you’ve written your usual safe ‘A paper…” She detailed the directions I might have taken, had I chosen to think a bit more. These comments burned in my mind every time I sat down to write a paper in college, and I never (not consciously, at least) wrote a “safe” paper again.
Andrea Libresco, in 1976.
I would be remiss if I did not mention her wicked sense of humor. When she was teaching us about the meaning of “sardonic,” she invited us to try our hands at making a sardonic comment. One student took up her challenge. He directed his stinger, “Nice wig,” at Ms. Higgins.
We looked from him to her, aghast. She elected to take him down, not by explaining how his insult was childish; rather, with barely concealed glee, she commented on an aspect of his dress: “Lovely sweater – knit it yourself, dear?” As usual, she had the last – wry – word.
Ten years ago, I re-connected with her when I was running a program at my university called The Teacher Who Shaped My Life. Students, alums and faculty talked about a teacher they felt had greatly influenced them. Although she could not attend, it began a 10-year correspondence with her that I have treasured. There was not a letter or email that didn’t make me laugh.
V. Louise Higgins, in 2014. (Photo/Karl Decker)
For example, her comments on Teach For America: “My fragile bones stop me from slugging grandparents I overhear counseling their grandchildren that they should use the TFA as a way station while they figure out what to do with their always enormous talents. However, one must be content with hoping all with such TFA views are operated on by young surgeons who just dropped in to medicine to get background for the string of novels or TV scripts they intend to write as soon as they have enough info.”
Her observations on her escalating physical infirmities allowed me to picture her jauntily battling them: “I am still recovering from hip replacement surgery, a rite of passage for almost everyone over 85. (The only bonus which comes with surviving it all is that one is able to wield a black, silver-handled cane with authority and strike poses that intimidate even medical persons.)”
She ended every email with the exhortation, “Onward.” And we, who were lucky enough to have V. Louise as a teacher, mentor, or friend, have no choice but to obey!
Anyone who attended Staples in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s knew V. Louise Higgins. The Radcliffe graduate influenced thousands of lives, as a revered English teacher and department chair.
That influence included fellow teachers and administrators, as well as students. Former colleague Karl Decker remembers V. Louise Higgins, who died last Friday at 92.
I came to the Staples English Department in September 1960, along with many other new young teachers. “V. Louise” — “Miss Higgins” of course to us unproven neophytes — had come to my classroom for my first observation.
V. Louise Higgins, in the 1956 Staples yearbook…
I was ready with a great lesson, the students were ready with pencils poised for note-taking, and I did all the right things. Miss Higgins sat in back taking notes on a yellow legal pad. Class ended, students left, Miss Higgins rose with her yellow legal pad and approached me.
“Dear boy,” she said using her frequent form of address. “A fascinating class. Tell me, for I am curious — just where did you get your material?”
“My fine college notes, Miss Higgins,” I replied. “You see, I saved them in case–”
“I thought so,” she said and paused. Then: “Tell me, have you considered burning them?” And with that she left the room.
As she passed by the wastebasket, she tore off the top sheet of her yellow legal pad, crumpled it up and backboarded it off the wall into the garbage.
If VL had a supervisory, mentoring objective, it surely was to get us to develop our own expertise, to work towards our own mastery of content and teaching skills. As she put it once to me, “I want you to be able to teach that class with your hands tied behind your back and without the crutch of a lesson plan — of specious value anyway — before you.”
…and in 1969.
Three years later I held a minor administrative position at Staples and had my teaching schedule halved. VL was clearly not pleased. One day she came to my new office and asked, “Are you going to be an administrator or a teacher?” I leaned back in the arrogance of my swivel chair and said I’d give it some serious thought.
“I want that serious thought done and over with tonight and your answer on my desk tomorrow morning,” she replied. I chose teaching. “The correct choice,” she said later. “Now, about the Shakespeare selections for the sophomore classes…”
So the years at Staples passed and eventually we went our separate ways. VL retired and devoted her later years to study of the ships and seafaring days of Southport. In 1999 I quit after 43 years of teaching to become a photographer and writer for 6 years at Vermont Magazine. Then by chance we re-met when she was in residence at the famed 3030 in Bridgeport. I had begun work on a novel.
“A novel? Dear boy, do let me read your drafts,” she said. And for the next 2 years, I’d send her the chapters as they came. Her critical skills were undiminished–sharp, perceptive, acerbic and yet supportive.
“On page 145 you have a paragraph that make no sense at all…Oh, yes, and here on page 166, you have a terrible mixed metaphor…ah, there is a nice turn of phrase somewhere here…just can’t seem to find it right now…”
In December 2014 — as she read his manuscript — Karl Decker took this photo of V. Louise Higgins. “Note the color in her world,” he says.
In one of my later calls she asked, “Where are Chapters 21 and 22?” I sent them, but no reply, no critique came. In my last call a few weeks ago, I had asked how she was doing. Prefaced with unguarded and easy laughter, she finally said, “Dear boy, I am 92 years old. At 92 you simply, don’t start getting better.”
As an ex-English teacher I suppose I should be able to end this encomium (she loved big, precise words) with some brilliant quote from the great literature. But nothing seems to come just now. All I can say is I feel as if the chain to one of my several anchors in the world has been severed and for a while, I may be somewhat adrift.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Thanks!)